Stretching the Limits

Robert Metzgus
Nancy Reno and Linda Hanley planned to make another run on the WPVA tour in 1998.

In early 1998, the WPVA was struggling to put together the finances for their upcoming season, a familiar story to beach volleyball fans today. And then, just as now, the only thing that wasn't in question was the talent of the players on the tour.

The Women’s Professional Volleyball Association teetered on the edge during an off season that produced little in the form of tangible answers.

The only thing certain – as far as the players saw it – was incertitude.

Dave Williams, who was holding the reins of the organization, saw it differently. He said a tour of 12 stops would begin on April 4 at Deerfield Beach, Fla., noting that four sponsors had gone to contract with the WPVA. “We have agreed in principle.” Does that mean the deals have been signed yet? No.

His assurances weren’t enough to stop the whispers. As rumors were flying – blown by the customary shuck-and-jive of promoters, agents, and would-be impresarios – there was a lot of chaff in the air but little wheat.

Still, players were generally upbeat, assuming that the tour would come together at the eleventh hour.

The prize money for the players may be there, but the checks aren’t likely to be drawn from existing WPVA bank accounts. Charlie Jackson, a computer software entrepreneur, entered the picture in late February with an offer that would include the start up of the Women’s Beach Volleyball Association.

Jackson’s plan assured players the continuation of the tour, with a new structure.

Nancy Reno shrugged her shoulders and said: “It’s been like this every year on the tour.”

What does appear different this year is the strength of the field – particularly the top six teams. And there are two major reasons to believe that this will be the best competition in the tour’s 12-year history: 1) the off-season rehabilitation of injuries that have been plaguing some of the sport’s greatest players, and 2) the emergence of three young players who appear destined for greatness.

It’s an exciting time. Yet, we all know that what pundits predict doesn’t necessarily prove true after the passage of time.

What is safe to say is that last year’s top team of Holly McPeak and Lisa Arce, will still be the team to beat. The hard-working McPeak, last year’s Player of the Year, expectedly brims with confidence: “Our goal is to win every weekend. Essentially, I’ve done that once before with Reno. Lisa and I are good enough to do that.”

If consistency and confidence are the hallmarks of McPeak and Arce, brute power and size will be those of the newly-formed team that has a lot of aficionados talking – Nancy Reno and Elaine Youngs. The imposing Reno, after another shoulder operation and rehab, says that “physically, I’ve been 100 percent for two months. I’m jump-serving for the first time in two years.”

Reno is anxious to get started with her new partner, Youngs. “No one has seen the likes of her. Physically, some of us have rivaled her, but she’s caught on so fast. I can’t explain why.”

For nostalgia freaks, the reuniting of the most dominating team in women’s history – Karolyn Kirby and Liz Masakayan – is especially pleasing. The resilient Masakayan, whose knee injuries have nearly given her the ten-count more than once, got off the canvas one more time last year – winning two of the last four events with Youngs.

When Youngs decided to go with Reno after the season, Masakayan turned to her old partner. Kirby, whose nagging shoulder appears much improved, feels the old magic is still attainable. “I was happiest and best with Liz. I’m excited about going back to our old style of play: ball control.”

And for a good show, a lot of eyes will be on the youngest team to reach a WPVA final—and the first African-Americans to achieve beach doubles prominence. Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson, who are both 23. They were groomed as outside hitters at UCLA, got their sand legs on the pro four-woman tour, and are preparing to bring their awesome physical talent to the beach doubles game. As TV broadcaster Maria Barnes put it: “They’re the team to watch.”

When the gun eventually goes off these four teams will be in the inside lanes. Other duos are capable of making a dash to the finish line as well. The season of 1998 should be a memorable one. Let’s take a look at the talent and alignment as it now stands:

HOLLY McPEAK – LISA ARCE

It’s almost a given that last year’s top team will keep on with their winning ways. The question is not if they will win, but how much. McPeak seems to think quite a bit. “Lisa and I analyzed our strengths and weaknesses during the off-season to determine what to work on.”

Specifically, that means that the shorter McPeak will have to refine her cagey shots to near perfection, since she knows that most of the serves will be coming at her. To score points, she recognizes “our strength is Lisa blocking at net. We’ll be doing a lot more of that.” In fact, one player designated to block all the time, with the other scurrying behind to pick up balls, is an emerging trend in the American game. McPeak adds, “Internationally, they do it all the time. To compete at the best level in the world, you have to.”

Competing successfully at that level has become second-nature and it has afforded them their most distinguishing trait. Confidence. That’s a big ingredient of winning.

Arce, in particular, is looking more self-assured these days. As Barnes observes, “McPeak and Arce will continue to do well. Arce is only getting better.”

NANCY RENO – ELAINE YOUNGS

Once again, money called away the talented Youngs to foreign shores for the indoor season. Last year it was Brazil. This year, Turkey. That decision by the co-Rookie of the Year in 1997 didn’t surprise anyone. What did was her partner swap.

Given last year’s strong finish with Masakayan, some are wondering if Youngs made the right choice. While recognizing that the new duo is not only the biggest team, but the one with the most offensive power, McPeak comments, “Liz and Elaine were a good team. Liz is one of the smartest and best players in the game. She taught Elaine a lot."

Barnes also questions the wisdom of tinkering with something that wasn’t broken. “I’m extremely impressed with Youngs. I think she and Liz were a good combination. I’m somewhat surprised they split up.”

Still, according to Reno, “the only variable in playing with Elaine was my shoulder.” Even with it hurting, Reno won three events last year. With her right arm now as good as ever, she could cause big trouble for opposing teams.

KAROLYN KIRBY – LIZ MASAKAYAN

Can the winningest team in history crank it up one more time for a bring-down-the-curtain encore? Maybe. As Reno says, “it depends on their health.”

Kirby says her shoulder is stronger. “Not 100 percent, but I don’t have any pain or strength loss. Now, I need to get back the arm speed I’ve lost.”

As for Masakayan’s health, she claims she feels solid, despite six knee operations. Last year she skipped a lot of tournaments. This year she plans to play a full season.

One thing’s certain. The two will not only have to recapture their flawless ball control, but somehow acquire the stamina that smaller sideout teams need to win. Although age and injuries are against them there, they both seem to have a healthy mental outlook. After the off-season breakup with Reno, Kirby views her new partnership as “the only thing that could fire me up at this point.”

Commenting further on the breakup with Reno, she says, “We both needed something different.” Reno concurs with a brief insight into the nature of the pro game. “It’s a business. We all get over it.”

ANNETT BUCKNER DAVIS – JENNY JOHNSON

“They learned how to play the game in one weekend. It was astounding to see their improvements from match to match.” That was Barnes’ take on the two former Bruins, who came through a WPVA qualifier to finish second in last year’s Orlando event.

Nancy Reno agrees. “Johnson and Davis are very talented. In tournaments where experience is less of a factor – no wind, hard-packed sand – they could do very well.”

Talent unbound is the word for this team. Whether there is a four-woman tour or not, the two best friends have decided to exclusively play doubles and shoot for a berth in the Sydney Olympics. With the speed and finesse of Johnson’s defense and the awesome hitting and blocking power of the taller Davis, they should strike real fear in opponents. Provided they even play on the WPVA tour. Davis says, “I’m going to play doubles somewhere. It depends on what finally happens, and what’s in the contracts.”

Davis, in particular, has experts watching closely. Former player and general manager of last year’s Team Paul Mitchell, Jeff Williams predicts that Davis “will be the best women’s volleyball player on any court next year.” That’s a mouthful, but the 23-year-old appears to be on her way to fulfilling it.

LINDA HANLEY – BARBARA FONTANA

Long on experience and short on stature is usually a game of diminishing returns. Such could be the continuing fate of Hanley-Fontana, 5’9” and 5’7”, but they shouldn’t be counted out. Kirby agrees.

“They’ll probably get a good start. They’ve played so long together.”

Indeed, it’s going to get harder to withstand the young, tall indoor players who are starting to make the transition to the sand. Still, this team enjoys respect from their peers. “Barb and Linda are tough,” said Reno. “Their problem is size.”

ANGELA ROCK – KARRIE POPPINGA

Angela Rock, like some of her colleagues, will be fighting against time this season. She and her partner, Karrie Poppinga, arrived in only one final last year. With the onslaught of newer, younger talent—as well as the improved health of older stars—it could be tough for this team to finish high consistently. Rock, however, is one of the most experienced players on tour and she’ll use that knowledge in a unique way this season.

Between matches, Rock will even be handing out sage advice to some competitors as coach of the newly formed Reno-Youngs team. “Angela is looking at retirement,” said Reno. “She wants to see us make it to the Olympics.”

THE FIELD

Holly McPeak points out that there are more and more collegiate All-Americans who are entering the beach game. Although walking out on the sand from hardwood requires some transition time, numbers alone dictate that a new crop of stars will soon replace many of the former luminaries. That could begin to happen this season, even though last year saw some veterans still holding on. Linda Chisholm finished twelfth in the money, and Gail Castro came in a number 17.

As the older players, like meteors, increasingly dim, look for new flares such as: Carrie Busch, Nancy Mason, Leanne Schuster, and Jennifer Meredith.

Early February may be perilously late to put together a professional beach tour, but stranger things have happened in this game. In all likelihood, it will coalesce as it has for the past 11 years.

And one thing remains certain. The players are ready and willing.

Originally published in May 1998

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